By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
No. 2 seed University of Connecticut is no stranger to postseason success.
UConn’s head coach Geno Auriemma led the Huskies to their 29th-straight Sweet 16 on Monday, but he said No. 7 seed Baylor women’s basketball threatened in a big way.
“There was a period of time during that game where I thought we’re really, really, really in big trouble because we were having so much trouble executing the defensive game plan that we wanted,” Auriemma said.
The Bears hung tough for about three quarters before falling by a large margin to the Huskies, 77-58, on their home court in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.
UConn now holds a 6-4 advantage in the all-time series between the two schools.
“We came out in the second half and I don’t think there was ever a time I thought we would win the game,” Auriemma said. “The change in our players and the defensive changes that we made and the intensity level that we played at, it’s probably one of the more gratifying wins that I’ve had in this building.”
After trailing by just five points at halftime, Baylor (20-13) was outscored by the Huskies (31-5) 37-23. Three Bears scored in double figures, courtesy of graduate student guard Ja’Mee Asberry (15), senior guard Jaden Owens (14) and freshman forward Bella Fontleroy (12).
The scoring trio shot a combined 10-of-17 from behind the 3-point line, while the rest of the group was just 2-for-12. The four other Baylor players that made it into the scoring column only totalled 17 points.
Baylor’s head coach Nicki Collen said she was proud of her group and the Huskies were too good around the basket for the entire game.
“I think over the course of the game their size wore us down,” Collen said. “[It] didn’t wear us down at the rim on the defensive end; it wore us down at the offensive end because they were switching a lot, and they did a good job of switching back when they could so we couldn’t stay with some of the matchups.”
On the flip side, four UConn athletes scored double figures, but sophomore guard Addi Fudd poured in a game-high 22 points, 16 of which came in the third quarter alone.
Owens echoed Collen’s comments in saying the Huskies had such a strong presence in the painted area.
“I think they just had so many more paint touches than us, whether it was guards, posts, and they were so effective doing that against us,” Owens said. “That’s usually what we’re really good at, and unfortunately they just did that better than us.”
Embracing its road mentality, Baylor came out of the gates firing. The team connected on 6-of-11 shots from behind the arc to take a 24-18 lead after the first quarter. Owens and junior guard Jana Van Gytenbeek combined for three of those 3-pointers.
UConn took its turn to start a quarter strong by going on a quick 7-0 run in the second period, forcing Collen to call a timeout. The Huskies claimed a 25-24 lead following the scoring punch. The Bears did a good job of responding for every blow UConn dished out, as they only trailed by five at the end of the half.
Connecticut’s Nika Muhl drilled a running jump shot from well beyond the 3-point line at the buzzer to make it 40-35. Baylor was able to hang in there in the first 20 minutes despite UConn shooting 57% from the floor.
Asberry sank a 3-pointer early in the third quarter before jumping a passing lane and cruising to a wide-open layup. Asberry’s basket trimmed the Huskies’ lead to 44-43 at the 6:09 mark, but Fudd exploded for 14 of Connecticut’s next 18 points to close the third, giving UConn a 62-50 advantage going into the final period.
Fudd (16) outscored the Bears (15) by herself in the third quarter.
“She played like an All-American for sure,” Collen said. “She had a little more bounce back, I thought. Maybe that game was coming for her. She’s worked her way back from her injury.”
Baylor appeared to run out of gas in the closing frame, as it only put up eight points to Connecticut’s 15. The Bears only had three made field goals in the final 10 minutes, and each bucket was scattered by as much as three minutes apart.
Baylor failed to reach the Sweet 16 for the second-straight season, as it lost in the round of 32 a year ago as well. Meanwhile, UConn reaches its 29th-consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and will face Ohio State University on Saturday. The Huskies have made it to the Final Four in every season since 2007-08.
The Bears wrap up the season with 20 wins, marking the 23rd-straight year the program has earned 20-or-more wins in a season, which is the second-longest active streak in the nation behind UConn (30-straight).
The Bears will lose the services of fifth-year senior forward Caitlin Bickle and Asberry due to them having exhausted all of their eligibility. Owens told reporters last week she will use her COVID-19 year and return for a fifth season.
Senior forwards Aijha Blackwell and Dre’Una Edwards are also expected to return for a final season in 2023-24. Baylor’s incoming class consists of Letycia Vasconcelos, a 6-foot-7-inch center out of Montverde Academy in Montverde, Fla.
Junior guard Sarah Andrews will also be a key returner, as she’ll enter her senior season 11 points shy of recording 1,000 for her career.
Bickle, a 2019 national champion at Baylor and someone who spent the last five years in the green and gold, said she was grateful for sticking around in the aftermath of Kim Mulkey’s departure.
Collen said she’s appreciative of Bickle for staying and showing the world what she’s capable of as a starting option.
“Caitlin, she’s so special,” Collen said. “She is our safety, our quarterback: she runs our team. She can run every position on our floor. She’s the best communicator on our team. Stubborn as heck. Nobody I’ve ever coached plays more for the name on the front of her jersey than Caitlin Bickle.”